by Lesley Scott
Billy was a buffalo that I raised from a scrawny little calf who was terrified.
|My Favorite Bison
by Lesley Scott
We never forget our first love.
Sometimes we can’t pick out our love; it just happens. In my case, true love was a bison. He arrived on a mild Saturday at the Animal Forest in June, scared to death and defensive. Jim Fowler, once the co-host of "Wild Kingdom," said to me with a laugh, "He's yours, now." He thought almost everything had some humor. So Billy became mine and I became his. He weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds and covered with tight red curls.
Every morning and at the closing, I cleaned out his pitifully small split railed paddock at the Charles Towne Landing Animal Forest. This was a new type of viewing animals in enclosures built to represent their natural habitats. Up front, where I greeted the tourists, I would let children bottle feed my fawns and watch the foxes come running out of the dense brush when I called their names.
Somehow, over time, Billy started to warm up to me. He felt lonely, being a herd animal and considered me to be his personal herd. I spent a lot of time with him, brushing his bristly coat and rubbing his itchy growing horn buds with skin softening Corona lotion. All of the attention and affection we had for each other gave us a connection that could never be broken.
He was very young and needed a lot of interaction. Some of my other varied duties brought out the maternal instinct in me and taught me how to understand animals. I raised the animals housed in the cages called "Orphans' Row" at the barn/office. I took care of the foxes, coons, fawns, possums, a wolf cub, some young foxes, alligators, elk and other South Carolina, native animals. I watched their behavior and interactions with others. The time I spent with an animal was like training without training. It is communication, pure and simple.
Friends and fans of "Wild Kingdom," often gave Fowler other wildlife for our habitat exhibits, and exotic animals that one would have to travel around the world for a glance. I felt lucky to walk a lynx on a leash, feed treats to the jaguar, hold the sloth and play with the quati mundy, known as "South American Raccoons."
Quati mundis are longer in the body than coons, with long striped gray and black tails. They are very playful and cute. I took this orphan with no name out on the leash when I had time. One would sort of gross me out when he ate toads. Toads are covered with poisoned warts and can kill a good sized dog. He would turn the toads inside out and eat out their insides. Then he tossed the poisonous skin as far away as he could.
I made it a habit to spend quality time with my orphans. Once, I took Spooky, a young red fox, out on a date to the drive in. Rosie my coon, slept in my bed and gave me great backrubs. I also carried possums in my pockets, and they would bite my tummy at feeding time. That first summer, I raised nineteen baby possums to adulthood. I felt lucky to be able to take care of and spend time with all of these native and exotic creatures.
The Animal Forest was one of the few animal displays that shows the animals in their native habitats. Our animals didn't really act like they noticed a couple or more fenced areas. We kept everything natural for the many visiting tourists. The idea was to show the animals that the settlers saw when they landed and named their new city Charles Towne more than 300 years ago in 1670. Now, much of the native wildlife back then is gone. So the Animal Forest provides important information for interested tourists and naturalists. I never stopped learning, as well as teaching interested tourists about these native animals.
Before I became close to him, Billy, the baby bison, cowered in a corner, rolling his eyes in terror. One of the workers told me that baby Billy was yanked away from his real mom and sent here for people to see. No wonder he wasn't eating much grain and hay. He acted like it was strange, but hunger prevailed. I decided he needed a bottle, just like the fawns I was raising.
He charged me when I approached, but he was the one who was afraid, not me. I stood my ground and smiled. Eventually, this poor, neglected calf would accept me as his mother. His appetite for the grain and hay increased, eventually, so he could thrive and grow. God, he was so beautiful with those inquisitive brown eyes and his black beard! His open affection to my attentions made me feel responsible for his well-being and quality of life.
I don't know how it happened -- we bonded closely in a couple of months. Our relationship and deep love for one another blossomed rapidly. I guess it was because we spent a lot of time together. One thundering and windy June afternoon, I stuck to my schedule and slipped Billy a bottle. He jumped right on that nipple, as always. I noticed his sucking sounded differently. I checked the baby bottle and the nipple was gone. I was almost panicked but thought I would wait it out before I snitched on myself.
About an hour later, I heard a loud "BBUURRPP" on Billy's side of the trail. I forgot that buffaloes, deer, elk, cattle, and other ungulates chewed their cud. Quickly, I jumped over the wooden split railed fence to retrieve the nipple, now in his throat. He was ready to swallow it again. I stuck my whole hand down his throat almost past my elbow until I grabbed something solid. I retrieved the nipple, and I could smell that stink from being predigested. I felt foolish because I studied this before.
Soon Billy grew fast and faster. His horn buds grew long and curled at the top of his wide, woolly head. His beard grew like a real buffalo and made him less shy. His coat was now black, as Billy lost the red perm he wore when we first met. He was probably the size of a pony and maybe weighed about 600 pounds more or less. He was about a year old at that time.
Unfortunately, Billy didn’t like anyone else. The other workers, including Fowler, had to be careful if they dared climb into his corral. Billy liked to bulldoze opossums and any other critter wandering into his paddock. He would snort loudly, dig up clods of dirt and his whole expression changed. No 'possum or coon stuck around very long. He defended his territory, like any bison would.
I was the only one that could take care of him, I kept busy cleaning his paddock, feeding, brushing him and cuddling. His coat, so shiny and thick, felt wiry. He was the perfect friend. I was told we probably had thousands of snapshots of me and my "Favorite Bison" on any given weekend.
Billy loved to play games in the early morning. He liked to sidle over to where I sat on the split rail fence and push on my leg with one of his growing horns. It pinched a little as he lifted me up and off of the fence. I knew what he wanted. He wanted my full attention. I made sure I gave it to him. I didn't want to end up in the mud or worse.
I would slide down beside Billy, grab a handful of hair and swing onto his broad back. We trotted, cantered, and galloped a little bit. It was fun but I hadn’t forgotten he was a wild animal. I was always ready to bail out if necessary. Riding a real buffalo gave me an amazing rush. I think he wanted me on his back to be close to me. He never once bucked, and that could break my bones or he could stomp me to death with his large strong legs with razor sharp hooves. I knew better and paid attention to his moods. I felt like I was riding a giant Brillo Pad.
When I started at the College Of Charleston in 1971, I spent weekends and after school at the Forest. I was learning in my vertebrate zoology class, along with other courses at the time, but Vertebrate Zoology taught me more than I learned from Spanish or World History. I felt lucky to be taught by such a renowned herpetologist, Dr. Sawyer. I was listening and taking notes in the class when the Dean, himself, tiptoed into the classroom. He recognized me as the girl who carried snakes in her pockets and tapped me on the shoulder.
He informed me that the Animal Forest needed me ASAP. As I drove as fast as I could, I knew it had to be a problem with Billy. The other animals would allow others to handle them. I was right, Billy was galloping all over the Landing, scaring everyone. He heard my loud Fiat, and ran to me faster than anyone could imagine such a large animal can cover the ground. He bleated, snorted, and his blue sandpaper tongue flapped in the breeze. The other employees and tourists ran into the gift shop or bathrooms, every possible hiding place. Billy caused a panic at the landing that day.
I don't think many tourists saw much of the Landing at that time, with Billy running around, bellowing and flipping sides. A loose adult bull bison would be something to fear. I would be anxious if Billy hadn't shown me his love and trust. I saw it all in our own special language. I couldn't help but be concerned, knowing his escape may happen again. The fence was too low for him, and he could climb over the split rails.
When I opened my arms, Billy galloped, and stopped in front of me, snuggling and licking me with his rough tongue. He made sweet little noises as he rubbed all over my body. Most of the tourists seemed to be terrified. Finally, I started walking back to Billy's small paddock with him beside me. He easily climbed into the pen. I had a talk with Billy, telling him even if he didn't see me all the time, I was with him forever. I told Fowler later that we needed another log on the top. He didn't say anything and I had an idea of what was going on.
The following day, I heard the horrible news --- Billy being sent back to the Buffalo Ranch to trade in for another poor calf, snatched from his mother's teats. While I am sure I would do a good job taking care of a new calf, Billy and I were already closely bonded. Why couldn't we build another paddock or put him in another habitat? Truthfully, I knew we had too many bison on board. Hollace, the Terrible, had a cow with a calf and another buffalo who had the good sense to stay well out his way. Hollace was a mean and scary bison.
I don't know if I was ready to grow so close to any other animal. Maybe Billy and I were too close. Fowler made me feel a little better when he said, "Maybe we can go visit him in Concord. North Carolina isn't too far away." Later, he mentioned that we were not going to bring in any more bison. The herd in the large habitat would be plenty. I could keep some more fawns in Billy's old paddock.
That dreadful day came so damn fast. I felt inconsolable and tried not to sob. I almost fell in the churned up mud, I was so upset. I’ve never felt that way before or since. I've learned to understand the pain and pleasure of animals. Animals have wants, needs, relationships, and emotions. Billy wanted to stay with me. I felt a bit guilty, making him love me too much.
When it was time to load Billy into the trailer, I just couldn't stop a few tears from running down my face. I tried to put a rope around his neck but he knew what was going on. Animals pick up on things we could never understand. Fowler tried roping Billy cowboy style, which was a flop. He hollered, "Aribba! Aribba!" I was told he was saying, "Mouse poop! Mouse poop!" He was a silly man with a good heart.
As a last resort, Fowler used a tranquilizer gun and hit my baby in the rump. The dart was long and it hurt me, as well. I had difficulty keeping myself together, watching Billy trying to stand up, only to flop around in the thick mud, to get his footing. He finally stopped struggling and passed out.
Billy probably didn't feel the ropes dragging him through the mud as he was lifted up and loaded into a waiting stock trailer. I cried because I never had the chance to tell him, “Goodbye, I love you, Billy.” Yet somehow I don’t think I had to say any words. Billy understood.
I took it hard, and for two years. Then, one August afternoon, we were talking about animals and Fowler told me the bad news. Billy had died from pneumonia. They figured I would fall apart, and that's what I nearly did. I slipped into the fox habitat, so no one could see me cry. Boots, my favorite fox, started throwing his ball, catching it in the air, as if to cheer me up. I would raise the fawns, wolf, puma, and the other baby animals and love them all. up. More animals would arrive for me to raise and care for.
I stood up and played fetch with my foxes until I stopped shedding useless tears. It took a long time. I fact, I still cry when I think of Billy. Now no one will ever mistreat or neglect Billy. I will always know where he is and how much he still loved me from up in Heaven. He taught me some invaluable lessons, and I learned a lot from my shaggy teacher, Billy. I carry him with me everywhere. He is always in my heart.